Manny Farber, King of Critics

I wanted to pop back in to say a little something about the critic Manny Farber, who died last week at the age of 91. For the latter part of his life, Farber concentrated more on his successful career as a painter, but it’s his movie criticism that has had the biggest impact, even on people who don’t know his name. Farber’s style as a critic, and his tastes, were so unusual that he rarely got regular gigs as a film reviewer; he got to take over from Otis Ferguson at The New Republic and James Agee at The Nation, but he spent most of his career freelancing. His take on movies. and pop culture in general, was like nobody else’s. There were basically two approaches to movie criticism before Farber, the highbrow and the middlebrow. The middlebrow critic, like anybody who ever became the first-string critic for the New York Times, tended to like movies with “something to say,” meaning that “prestige” pictures, the type of movie that wins Best Picture Oscars, got the best reviews. Highbrow critics saw movies as an art form with untapped potential that was constantly betrayed by the Hollywood machine. James Agee was the best and most famous of these highbrows; if you read his collected reviews, you’ll see that he felt, in common with many critics, that movies had gone downhill since the silent era (the only time when movies were a truly unique art form) and that there were only a select few movies that could be called serious art.

These critics had a fairly consistent set of standards for what made a good movie. What made Farber different was his suspicion of any standards at all. If you read him for advice on what movies to see, you’d be driven nuts; he was unpredictable, rarely fell in love with individual filmmakers (there were some he admired, but unlike Pauline Kael, he didn’t really have “pets”), and in his essay collection Negative Space, he is absolutely guaranteed to put down some movies you like for reasons that aren’t completely clear.  And he sometimes got stuff wrong in his descriptions of what happened in movies, but mostly because he was writing in many cases about films that were hard to see (this was before home video) and if it wasn’t a recent film he was referring to, he had to go by memory alone. The only thing that was consistent about him is that he wasn’t interested in the prestige value of films, or their social relevance, or their ability to Deal With Important Issues; he didn’t much care whether a picture made the world a better place or advanced the cause of film as serious art. What interested him most was the ability of films to grab you in ways you didn’t expect, and that meant singing the praises of stuff that was not prestigious, was not “serious art,” but did something to you that you could never forget, burned its images or performances into your brain.

He coined the term “termite art” to describe the kind of pop culture he loved best; it’s the kind of art where the creator is not consciously trying to create a masterpiece (what he called “white elephant art”) but is just trying to accomplish something little, and, like a termite, winds up gnawing his way through “to the next achievement.” His search for termite moviemakers led him to discover a lot of directors who had been neglected by other critics because their stuff wasn’t “important” enough: he was only the second critic to express the opinion that Looney Tunes cartoons were better and funnier than Disney’s (and the first critic to go to bat for Chuck Jones); the first American critic to call attention to the trashy artist Rainer Werner Fassbinder; the first American critic to sing the praises of guys like Howard Hawks and Sam Fuller and Don Siegel.

But his influence goes beyond the reputations he helped establish; the idea he helped establish was incredibly important: aspiration is not the same thing as achievement. The idea that the more Big Ideas and Big Issues you deal with, the better the work must be, is ingrained in all pop-culture producers, and Farber certainly didn’t eradicate it. (I wonder what he thought of The Dark Knight, a Termite subject produced with a White Elephant sense of its own importance.) But Farber at least made it OK for us to acknowledge that there was a lot more to pop culture than just the acknowledged masterpieces and Ambitious Works, and that we might find more interesting things not by pretending that a Termite movie is more serious than it is, but by asking ourselves why a great Termite movie affects us in the way it does, what it does to us and how. He even hinted in 1962 that it might be a good idea to look to television, that scorned and derided medium, for moments that stay with us even though they were meant to be ephemeral:

The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is no where in evidence, so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke are and not caring what comes of it. The occasional newspaper column by a hard-work specialist caught up by an exciting event (Joe Alsop or Ted Lewis, during a presidential election), or a fireball technician reawakened during a pennant playoff that brings on stage his favorite villains (Dick Young); the TV production of The Iceman Cometh , with its great examples of slothful-buzzing acting by Myron McCormick, Jason Robards, et al.; the last few detective novels of Ross MacDonald and most of Raymond Chandler’s ant-crawling verbosity and sober fact-pointing in the letters compiled years back in a slightly noticed book that is a fine running example of popular criticism; the TV debating of William Buckley, before he relinquished his tangential, counter-attacking skill and took to flying into propeller blades of issues, like James Meridith’s Pale Miss-adventures.

His friend and fellow critic J. Hoberman has an appreciation, but the best way to appreciate Farber is just to get a copy of Negative Space and think about how unusual it was for anybody to be writing at length about some of these things in the ’40s and ’50s.

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